Shakespeare’s King Lear is the theatrical equivalent of an Olympic decathlon.
Lear may be the most challenging role in the English-speaking theater, one that takes prickly concepts of vanity, loss and madness and pushes them about as far as they can go.
“Of all the roles I’ve done, this is the most demanding,” said Theodore Swetz, who will play the mad king in the Kansas City Actors Theatre production starting Friday, Oct. 13, in Spencer Theatre as a co-production with UMKC Theatre.
“It’s a sustained assault on the mind and body. At the same time it’s fun. Terrific fun.”
Swetz — the Patricia McIlrath endowed professor of theater at UMKC — has directed and performed in countless plays at Actors Theatre, the Unicorn and Kansas City Repertory theaters, among others. He has appeared in numerous productions of “King Lear,” but he says he never expected to play the title role.
That he now is getting his chance is particularly fitting. Not only may it be seen as the culmination of Swetz’s 40-some years of stage experience and actor training, but it will serve as a sort of farewell performance. He plans to retire next year and move with his wife to their cabin in rural Wisconsin.
He’ll be going out with a bang.
In a recent talk in the Spencer Theatre lobby, Swetz — whose job is to serve as teacher and mentor to acting students — explained with soft-spoken enthusiasm how his preparations for Lear began decades ago when, as a young actor, he encountered theatrical legends like Joseph Papp, Morris Carnovsky and Stella Adler.
Now, he says, he sees just about everything that has happened in his 64 years as preparation for the role of a lifetime.
While still in college Swetz, a native of Yonkers, N.Y., found himself working for Papp, creator of NYC’s Public Theatre. Swetz appeared with Sam Waterston in “Hamlet” at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater and in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Lincoln Center — “all before I graduated.”
He took classes from Adler, who as a young actress had seen the only U.S. tour by renowned Russian actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski. She quickly embraced his ideas about acting technique.
She imparted to Swetz this maxim: “An entertainer features themselves. An actor features the story.”
And he recalls the day in class that his performance drew a round of applause from the other students.
“Don’t you ever believe them,” the slow-to-praise Adler told Swetz. And then, after a pause: “But you’re learning, aren’t you?”
His greatest influence, though, was Carnovsky, who like Adler had been a member of the famous Group Theatre. In the 1920s and ’30s the Group debuted modern plays by the likes of Clifford Odets while creating an American version of the Stanislavski technique.
“It began when I saw he was offering a class in Connecticut where I was living at the time,” Swetz recalled. “That six-week class became a 16-year relationship.”
A legendary stage actor who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Carnovsky performed the role of Lear several hundred times.
“I never though I’d get a crack at Lear,” Swetz said. “But we talked about it a lot. That role was a seminal thing for Morris; it allowed him to really put the technique to the test.”
Although he was still learning the play’s complex text, Swetz said he came to “Lear” with well-formed ideas about the work.
Under the direction of Ryan Artzberger, Swetz said, this “Lear” will be “quite surprising. Very raw and emotionally deep.”
“Inside I already know how to act it. I see deeper now than when I first encountered Lear some 20 years ago. It’s just a case of getting it all in there so I can let it out.”
One key to Swetz’s approach is the Great Chain of Being, a concept that would have been familiar to the Elizabethans for whom Shakespeare was writing.
“The chain is this way of organizing life and society. If something is out of order in the chain, it can mean the destruction of the universe.”
Early in the play King Lear announces he is stepping down from the throne and dividing his kingdom among his three daughters.
“In the opening scene something happens that defines the play,” Swetz said. “Things go wrong early and affect everyone. After that it’s a scramble for power or just survival.
“As we’re playing it, virtually every scene featuring Lear is delivering some wrenching blow to the Great Chain of Being. To an Elizabethan that would mean chaos, and chaos is where tragedy comes from.”
That chaos can be exhilarating … and exhausting.
“Morris told me that in every scene he felt assaulted. Now I get it. I once asked Morris about his performances as Lear: ‘How many were right for you?’
“And he said, ‘Two. Three. No, two.’
“It’s not about being perfect. It’s about being a great advocate for the play.”
Speaking of great chains … Swetz said he feels a part of an ongoing movement of acting teachers and students.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with and learn from these people, people who set you afire. But there are responsibilities.
“Stella knew Stanislavski. She was first generation. I’m second. And I’m in a (master’s of fine arts) program so that I can pass on this tradition. That’s the goal … to pass on all the gold I’ve been given.”
In fact, he’ll be sharing the stage with many of his students, who have been cast in supporting roles.
For all the struggle to bring a character like Lear to life, Swetz said there is nothing quite like acting.
“On stage you get to do things, things that are forbidden in real life. But on the stage you can do them with no consequence. And along the way we all learn something about what it is to be human.”
“King Lear” will run Oct. 13-22 in the Spencer Theatre at UMKC. For tickets, $15- $40, call 816-235-6222 or visit kcactors.org.